Sunday, 20 September 2020

Nationalism and Me

I really am very British. This isn't a statement about my admiration for many of traditions of this island nor the presence of a Union flag in my living room, but it is literally in my DNA. I'm very fond of Britain but my primary motivation in taking a DNA test was in the hope of uncovering some long lost connection to a part of the world which to me today would feel remote. I was ready to develop an affinity with a corner of the world which I'd never realised I was linked to, maybe Albania, or Latvia, or who knows where? I'd also all but convinced myself I was at least a little bit Viking. And so, when the results came back with just a hint of western Europe and a lot of Britain, I was a little underwhelmed. I can't really complain, it is my own DNA! As the scientists gain more samples they are able to refine the results, and now on what I think is the third refinement it can only be said that I really am very British.


My father has carried out a lot of family history research and had already accounted for many of these findings, although the proportion (subject to margin of error) of Scottish ethnicity is interestingly high as we know little of my Scottish ancestry other than unconfirmed indications that it links back to Aberdeenshire. A little leap of faith links it with the Forbes clan and thus you may occasionally see me with the appropriate tartan scarf or tie. Apparently, the lack of Irish DNA was also a surprise as it was thought, but again not confirmed, that one line of my paternal family most likely linked to Ireland. On this basis it would appear not. Those details aside, it appears my most exotic roots are in Aberdeenshire which while beautiful isn't quite the revelation I was hoping for when I spat into the test tube.

It is a very big statement to make, but perhaps my ancestral story is intertwined with that of this island. It certainly seems to fit with my awkwardness in trying to understand nationalism and perhaps also my relaxed view on having many components to my identity, only some of which a geographic.

The economic case for the union is frequently made and was a mainstay of the successful campaign to keep the union together in 2014. The realisation that a campaign for Britain to remain one nation together needs a campaign which speaks to hearts as well as heads has been slower to emerge, although the work of These Islands is well worth exploring if such matters interest you. Not every aspect of my involvement in politics in the past brings with it a sense of pride - not every candidate I canvassed on behalf of turned out to be quite what we might have hoped for - but one thing that I always pick out when people ask what I'm most proud of in politics is telephoning voters in the Highlands to say that I hoped they would vote to stay in the union. Telephone canvassing is typically a chore, but this was a pleasure. I also got the impression that it was particularly well received whatever the individual's voting intention that people from Wales were calling them to, in effect, say "please stay, we don't want you to leave".

Of course, to those who frame every argument through the prism of nationalism, they would simply say that this makes me a nationalist for the state of Britain. While there is something to the logic, I do not think it is an argument which holds much weight. My nationalism, to the extent that it exists, is in a pragmatic form - we are one relatively small but successful island, it does not make sense to divide it up into separate nation states. I also struggle with the certainty that people put on the borders within this island. I cannot really comprehend what unifies Chepstow with Y Felinheli and Rhosneigr  but supposedly divides it from Tutshill and Sedbury. Indeed, internal borders themselves emerge from acts of pragmatism. A civil servant makes their best effort to reflect a line which dates back to an ancient battle. It is a reasonable approach to find a suitable delineation but it seems strange to gold-plate identity definitions on the basis of it.

I do wonder whether my thinking would be the same if I lived in continental Europe. Perhaps there the geographic and political definition of my national identity might be more important to me as it is such a large landmass and one which has seen a great deal more conflict and border changes in recent centuries than the comparatively peaceful island of Britain. I acknowledge too that I have not entered into the debate over the divided nature of Ireland. One could overlay my comments about pragmatic national identity in Britain over the Irish question and conclude that the direct read-across would be a united Ireland. However, I am simply providing my own perspective on the island upon which I live.

As established above, the principle of nationalism itself does not particularly resonate with me. That though is not to say that I do not take pride in the successes of the nation I belong too. I frequently find myself at a loss when hearing people running down Britain. It is, of course, only done in the way one can when they have the privilege to live in a free, open, tolerant and successful nation. Where I draw a distinction between this pride and nationalism is that generations of Britons have worked hard to earn my generation that stability and opportunity. It was not exceptionalism of being British that is the foundation, but the good fortune that I had to be born into such a well-founded society.

There is scope at this point to hive off down various pathways considering the impermanence of Britain's current standing in the world or to look at how weak the current union is in terms of awareness of the different cultures within it. Those topics could well turn into future blogposts. For now though, I'll conclude that my underwhelming DNA result and my difficulty in understanding identity-based nationalism are at least reasonably consistent. What is more, I really rather like this island.